When I moved to Seattle three months ago, I added another section to my list of books to read, which already spans six pages in my notebook: Northwest Lit. Here are some of my favorite discoveries. Most are probably old-hat to locals in this proudly well-read city, but maybe not. You might consider them gift suggestions for other newcomers, or something to offer out-of-town visitors when they’ve exhausted Lonely Planet Seattle.
Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier, Bruce Barcott (Ballantine, 1997). A few weeks ago I quoted Barcott as an authority on Mt. Rainier, then realized I should read his book to find out if he knows what he’s talking about. He does. His fierce sense of curiosity, more than the mountain he adores, is the engine that drives the story along. Like two of the authors below and most profitable non-fiction writers lately, Barcott weaves his expository sections into a personal narrative. The chapters on wildflowers and geology fulfill the book’s educational mandate, but Barcott’s internal conflict over REI backpacker culture is a lot funnier, and his musing on the ethics of mountain-climbing machismo bring the story to another level.
The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest, Timothy Egan (Vintage Departures, 1990). Egan, formerly the Pacific Northwest correspondent for The New York Times, uses history to shed light on present-day terrains in a way daily journalism usually can’t be troubled with. In each chapter he hikes or explores an idiosyncratic corner of the Northwest, often finding a useful guide — legendary climber Fred Becky in the North Cascades, and the Queen’s official representative in colonial Victoria, B.C. The book moves at a comfortable walking pace, which fits the mist-shrouded landscapes and cityscapes that attract Egan.
Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, Fred Moody (2003). Moody finds an appealing balance of memoir and opinionated reporting and provides the toughest type of literary history to find — the last few decades’ worth. It’s easy to find tales of Chief Sealth and pioneer characters like Doc Maynard and Arthur Denny. But Moody’s inside look at the growth of Microsoft and a tech-bubble casualty, along with his recounting of the city’s pro sports sagas and the political climate that gave rise to the WTO riots can be invaluable to newcomers in a hurry to bone up on local knowledge.
Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle, Matthew Klingle (Yale University Press, 2007). Former University of Washington history grad student Klingle pokes gaping holes in the city’s eco-righteousness by chronicling the way various underclasses have been trampled in nearly every “environmental” public works project in the city’s history. The book sometimes reads like a dissertation, but Klingle details fascinating proceedings that led to the creation of the Ship Canal, the Denny and Jackson Street regrades, and the city’s park system. He begins with a great passage from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: “But isn’t everything here green?” asked Dorothy. “No more than any other city,” replied Oz; “but when you wear green spectacles, why of course everything you see looks green to you.”
True, there’s a dearth of fiction here. That’s coming in a later post. Suggestions are welcome.
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